The U.S. State Department is being criticized for its handling of the escape of Chen Guangcheng, a blind Chinese activist, from house arrest to the U.S. Embassy in China. Chen broke out of his home after 19 months of illegal house arrest and he arrived at the embassy just days before Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was to meet Chinese officials in Beijing for a two-day summit. The situation complicated already tense Chinese-U.S. relations as American diplomats attempted to deal with the activist without crossing China as they head into the summit.
Reportedly, Chen initially wanted to remain in China to protect his family, whom he feared would face reprisals for his escape. "He was excited and eager about leaving [the U.S. embassy]," U.S. Ambassador to China Gary Locke said in a press briefing Thursday. American officials delivered Chen to a hospital to be treated for the injuries he sustained in his escape. They were said to have received assurances from China that neither Chen nor his family would be harmed, and that the family would be relocated to a new province. However, when Chen found himself alone in the hospital, without the accompaniment of U.S. embassy workers he said he had been promised, the activists began to fret. He told the Daily Beast's Melinda Liu, "My fervent hope is that it would be possible for me and my family to leave for the U.S. on Hillary Clinton's plane." A State Department spokesperson says U.S. officials have spoken to Chen and his wife, and are reassessing the situation, as "they as a family have had a change of heart about whether they want to stay in China."
Some say the United States mishandled the situation. According to Chen, U.S. officials threatened him, saying that his family would be returned to the site of the house arrest and that his wife would even be beaten to death if he remained at the embassy, claims U.S. officials deny. A statement from Florida Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, chairman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, criticized embassy for siding with the Chinese, concluding,
The Administration must support Mr. Chen's freedom to choose where he and his family can live in safety. Failing to ensure Mr. Chen's safety would send a negative message to all those around the world struggling against oppression, and make them question whether the United States will stand with them or their oppressors.
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Tierney Sneed is associate editor of U.S. News Opinion. E-mail her at email@example.com.